June 7 vs. Vegas Golden Knights at Capital One Arena
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7 and FAN 106.7
Game 5, Stanley Cup Final series. Capitals lead, 3-1.
One more win.
That’s all that stands between the Washington Capitals and the first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history, 44 star-crossed years after the Caps gained membership in the NHL in 1974-75.
After drubbing the Knights 6-2 in Washington in Monday’s Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Caps head back to Vegas with a 3-1 series lead and a chance to close out the set and the season at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas when the two teams meet again for Game 5 of the series on Thursday.
For the Capitals, Thursday’s game is No. 3,701 in franchise history, including regular season and postseason contests. It’s the first of those 3,701 in which Washington will have the opportunity to hoist the Cup afterwards with a victory.
“There is a lot on the line,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. “I think everybody recognizes the opportunity we have, that we earned. The destination is in sight, but we have to stay focused on how we get there. We’ve been really good at that up to this point, and that’s got to continue [Thursday], have a real good focus on how we need to play and how well we’re going to have to play to achieve what we want here.”
The Caps departed the District for the desert on Tuesday, and they conducted a final tune-up at T-Mobile Arena on Wednesday in preparation of that aforementioned opportunity. Washington has been so businesslike in its approach throughout the regular season and the playoffs, but with their lifelong dream now within reach and with an extra day between games, can they maintain their laser-like focus?
“I think we’ve just got to stay focused and make sure we’re playing with the same intensity and same energy we have been this postseason,” says Washington center Nicklas Backstrom. “It’s game 106, but I feel like we’ve been having a lot of days off here in the playoffs and make sure we get some rest. The two days in between games here, too, obviously is going to help.”
Those two days are critical with the cross-continent travel involved for both teams, and the obvious need for rest and recovery. But the way Washington finished Game 4, the Caps probably would have been happy to play the next one the very next night, regardless of venue.
“I think it’s good for us to get an extra day to recover and get our emotions back and get our mindset the right way,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin.
“To be honest with you, I think most of us have never been in this position,” Ovechkin continues. “For me personally, I don’t try to think about it too much, what’s going on. I’m just trying to focus on different things, but it’s hard. Obviously, it’s hard.”
Focus on what?
“Whatever. Cars. Hotels. Vegas.”
As much as the Caps are in uncharted territory in playing a game for the Cup for the first time in their history, the Golden Knights are also navigating some new waters here. They are facing elimination from the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in their brief history, and they’ve lost as many games in this round as they lost in the first three rounds combined.
Vegas has scored the game’s first goal in all nine of its home games this spring, doing so in the first period of all nine contests. The Golden Knights are 7-2 on home ice in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Caps’ 3-2 victory in Game 2 of the SCF last Wednesday is the only regulation setback the Knights have suffered in their barn during the playoffs.
That loss last week coupled with a pair of setbacks in the District in Games 3 and 4 has left Vegas feeling down on its puck luck, and on the brink of elimination from what has been a remarkable ride as a first-year NHL expansion club. For just the fourth time in its 101-game NHL history – 82 regular season games and 19 more in the postseason – the Knights have lost three straight games. They have yet to lose four in a row at any point, but if they do so on Thursday, their magical run will come to a halt.
These opportunities to get this far and to compete for the Cup are obviously rare, and many players have played many years without ever getting the chance to play in a Stanley Cup Final. You can bet that the Golden Knights will bring everything they’ve got in Thursday’s Game 5, and the Caps will need to exceed it to finish the series.
Washington’s 3-1 lead over the Golden Knights is its first such advantage in the 2018 playoffs. The Caps were all even at 2-2 four games into each of their first three series this spring. While the Caps own a 9-7 record in Games 1-4 this spring, they’ve displayed some killer instinct late in series, going 6-1 in Games 5-7, and closing out all three of their previous sets on the road, and in the first chance they had to do so.
“You can watch video,” says Niskanen, “and we do our pre-scouts for teams heading into a series, but until you get through a couple of games and get a feel for what it’s like out there – what areas of the ice are open, what battle areas are going to be really important in the series, their rush attack and what they like to do – until you get a feel for it, it’s kind of a guessing game.
“So far, every series we’ve gotten better and better as the thing has gone on. So we’ve got to keep that trend going. We are on a nice little run here; our two home games we scored some goals and played pretty well. And the good news is I don’t think we’ve played our best yet; I think we’ve got room to grow yet. We will look to have our best game of the series tomorrow and it’s going to be really hard to beat these guys.”
It is, indeed.
“You work so hard to get to this point, and then you want to make it happen,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We talked about just focusing on one game. There is a very proud team on the other side – they’re well coached, they’ve got a lot of pride and they’re going to come with their best game. We’re not going to beat them with anything less than our best game. So it isn’t going to be three-quarters of our roster, it’s going to be everybody, and we’re going to have to their work ethic, we’re going to have to match the detail.
“We’re going to go over some stuff that we need to correct in our game, and we’re going to have to leave it out there. It’s just one game. You just focus on the next game. I can’t tell you what is going to happen [Thursday], but I can tell you that you’re going to need your best game if you want to get this done.”